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Turning Malayalam calligraphy into a fine art
Turning Malayalam calligraphy into a fine art avatar

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Thiruvananthapuram: Asked to point out some of his best works is probably the stupidest question one can pose to Narayana Bhattathiri, a name synonymous with Malayalam calligraphy.
Rather than point out some his unforgettable drawings for the titles of novels 'Randamoozham' or 'Neermathalam Pootha Kalam', he gently prods you to look up his Facebook page 'Bhattathiri Calligraphy'. Bhattathiri is that rare artist who draws energy from his work and not from society's acceptance.

Meeting Bhattathiri a day after the announcement of the Jikji international award for the best calligraphy work instituted by the South Korean government in memory of their first printed book 'Jikji', he was, as usual, busy with his work at his office on the first floor of his house at Forest office lane, Vazhutacaud.

It was an employee of the Indian embassy in Seoul – Dinesh Moorakkal – who saw his works on Facebook and suggested to Bhattathiri to send some of them over. Last year, the Korean government included Bhattathiri's three calligraphy works as a permanent exhibit at Cheongju culture centre in North Chungcheong.

This year, Bhattathiri collected and sent 27 works of around 14 calligraphy artists in the country to Seoul. Among those, Bhattathiri's work on Jikji won the award.

A native of Pandalam, 59-year-old Bhattathiri started his career in Kala Kaumudi while doing his degree at Fine Arts College in Thiruvananthapuram. He also worked in Samakalika Malayalam. During his tenure in magazines, he drew titles for various novels such as O V Vijayan's Pravachakante Vazhi, M Mukundan's Daivathinte Vikrutikal, Malayatoor Ramakrishnan's Aaram Viral to name a few. He also did titles for all the works of M T Vasudevan Nair when Malayala Manorama made a CD of the writer's works. Though Bhattathiri could not recollect the exact number of films he worked for, the list includes most films of Padmarajan to latest films like 'Ennu Ninte Moideen' and 'Clint'.

The calligraphy style of Bhattathiri is that even a person who is unfamiliar with Malayalam script might get a feel of it.

With a few strokes and some dots, he can write 'Niram Marunna China' resembling Chinese characters. His ambigrams are highly popular.

"Earlier, people used to hang quotes from the Bible on the wall, which were excellent calligraphic works. I wish such a culture would come back where people could hang calligraphic works on their walls," Bhattatiri exclaims.

It was the exhibition 'Ka cha ta tha pa', that brought together a few of his innumerable works, organized on the pestering of his late friend Sundar Ramanatha Iyer in 2013, that made Bhattathiri popular.

The exhibition was an eye-opener to several artists. Orion Champadiyil, who is a senior art director at Maitri advertising, says that it was from the 'ka cha ta tha pa' that he started thinking about Malayalam calligraphy.

"Till then, my calligraphy experiments were limited to English. After learning about his works, I started asking myself why I didn't try Malayalam calligraphy. I was more into typography and it was after getting inspired by him that I started doing Malayalam calligraphy," he says.
Bhattathiri once saw a Gulf-based music band using his calligraphy as their logo which he had originally designed for a musical event of musician Ramesh Narayanan. Out of curiosity, he asked how they got it. They replied that it was from the internet. Of course, using his works without permission or credit was not a concern for Bhattathiri. When asked about recognition and money, he says it is up to the people who use his work to decide. "I already got my reward from the satisfaction of doing it," he says.
While Malayalam is experiencing a dearth of Unicode fonts, Bhattathiri and free software developer Santhosh Thottingal, who is the designer of Malayalam Unicode fonts Chilanka and Manjari, have been planning to develop a new Unicode font for a while.
"With the support of Bhattathiri, we could create a unique Malayalam font. I am ready to provide all technical support for developing a new font," Santosh says. "Among the present calligraphy artists, Bhattathiri is the greatest. He can be considered a continuation of the great lineage of Vasu Pradeep, C N Karunakaran and Bharathan."

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